Leading Today. Changing Tomorrow. Perspective from the Field.

By Jeff Willis

For the past 25 years I worked in the fields of outdoor experiential education, child and youth work and leadership development. I truly believe children, youth and their families need to be seen, heard and believed. No matter what the circumstances. They are visible not invisible.

99% of the kids I met in my career have the potential to be the most incredible leaders of today and the potential to change their tomorrow. However, it is our responsibility to first teach them how lead themselves before they can lead others. We need to teach them the life and social skills required to successfully explore their options and the ability to see the opportunities on their horizon. We need to give them a chance and teach them to work hard for opportunities.

In 2003 I started working as a Youth and Family Worker at a Vancouver inner city school. Grandview/¿uuqinak'uuh Elementary School taught me many things about what works and does not work in education and Child and Youth Work, especially for a community that has been underserved, disrespected, mistreated and misunderstood for decades.

First off, I learned that most of the parents and students I worked with were incredibly humble, sincere and strong. I saw firsthand how they were marginalized by society but were more real and authentic than the average Canadian. It was clear that they were tough on the outside and vulnerable on the inside. Secondly, kids will only learn and change for the better if we remind them everyday they matter and they belong. Thirdly, all the work we do needs to focus on their strengths rather than their deficits.

What doesn’t work in education is when teachers and support staff are not willing or unable to give 100% for their students. Their responsibility is to be fully committed to helping students become the best they can be as young people and as learners.

Would you settle for someone only giving you 50% of their time or effort? Why would we give only 50% to our students?

I learned that in a time of crisis, blaming the parent(s), the “system” or even the student will get you know nowhere. It is about getting to solutions rather pointing fingers and creating a better space and place and/or at least getting a plan in place that everyone will rally around. One of the most important things I learned in my career is that you cannot take the role of saving or parenting a student.

Our job is to go beyond teaching the ABC’s 123’s. We mentor. We listen. We guide. We make an impact on our student’s strengths and potential.

I learned more on the frontline than I did at post secondary school. I learned more from my students and their parents than I did from my professors. The work I witnessed from other educators, administrators and youth workers ,whose professional conviction and determination to make a positive impact on their students was astounding, has stayed with me throughout my career.

As an educator you place more limits on yourself than anyone else around you. I was taught to balance boldness and gentleness, move quickly but quietly and be strategic yet flexible. Be effective and deliberate.

The call of the wild or as educators say “the outside classroom” came hammering down on me one day when a group of my students disclosed they had never climbed a mountain, swam in the ocean, slept in a tent or paddled a canoe. I was taken back that my students had no experience, knowledge or ability to access outdoor recreation. They also expressed that they probably would not become anything in life. I felt all the work I was doing in the school was down the pipe.

I got irritated that my students were disconnected with their potential, struggled to appreciate the “awe” of nature and suffered from a lack of self worth. I impulsively decided I was going to start a summer leadership camp. First I started with an experiential-based day program mixing my inner city students with nearby private school kids. The idea took off and a relationship sprung between both schools. Then I figured I would start taking students on one to three week outdoor leadership expeditions called Fireside. Ten years later, in partnership with community organizations, individuals and schools, Fireside Adventures continues to support many children and youth who do not have funding to access summer programs.

Some of the students who participated in the earlier programs, most of whom were not expected or identified as those who would complete secondary school, have broken those expectations and graduated. Now they are in a position to hold up their end of an agreement I made and continue to make with each camper: give back. Through this experience, these kids inspire. Not only me, but also other kids going through similar struggles and who need to consciously make and follow though on important life choices. The success of Fireside and Grandview is credited to the parents who trusted and believed in us. It goes to students who took a chance and opened themselves up. It goes to my co-workers who supported me and others at Fireside. The story continues.

From Fireside, I decided I wanted to do something that I could never do during my time at Grandview - create an Aboriginal youth leadership program that really impacted urban First Nations youth.

Three years ago the Surrey School District took a chance and funded a program I designed. Windpeaker is an experiential and cultural based outdoor leadership program, offering after school workshops, weekend field trips, retreats, March Break and summer expeditions for Surrey Aboriginal students. We started with just 15 apprehensive students and now we are at 60 youth and a waiting list. All students are in school and have committed to being a leader to change their own tomorrow by promising to move onto post secondary. Besides showing up for planned outings or training sessions that is the commitment they make to stay in the program.

Watch our Windspeaker video.

We have the best job in the world and it is privilege to serve and teach our students.

Fireside Adventures continues to provide recreational multi-day summer expeditions for youth and young adults to participate in outdoor experiential educational activities, leadership training and guided adventures within BC and the Yukonwww.firesideadventures.ca.